One of the core texts in my Sociology of Guns seminar last fall was Philip Cook and Kristin Goss’s The Gun Debate: What Everyone Needs to Know (Oxford University Press, 2014).
Cook and Goss are both public policy professors at Duke University who have published extensively on guns. Cook is a sort of “Dean” of social scientific gun studies. He writes generally from a negative outcomes and gun regulation perspective. Goss wrote the definitive study of why the gun control movement has failed so far.
The “What Everyone Needs to Know” subtitle means The Gun Debate is part of a book series published by Oxford University Press that covers a range of topics from ADHD to Venezuela. The substance of the books are presented in a question-and-answer format.
The authors’ biases can be seen at various points, as when they answer the question “What is an assault weapon?” without any critical commentary about the term itself (pp. 13-14) and when they equate stand-your-ground laws with a “shoot first” and explain later approach to deadly force (p. 131). But The Gun Debate has the considerable advantage of covering many essential issues in a single, easily accessible volume. For example, “What is a gun?” “What role do shooting sports play in American life?” “Who is at risk of being shot?” And so on.
Cook and Goss’s answers are far from uniformly anti-gun. To the question, “Is a gun an effective means of self-protection against an assailant?” the authors write, “The answer is a qualified yes” (p. 17). Based on my understanding of the data, this is an accurate response. Observing the norm that those who own guns often “have several (usually of different types) and in some cases dozens,” Cook and Goss remark, “There is nothing unusual about guns in this respect — the same thing could be said about cameras or computers” (pp. 6-7).
And there are little gems of insight throughout the book, like how lack of trust in government manifests itself in public opinion polling on guns. Cook and Goss note an experiment by Gallup in which they asked people whether they would vote for a law expanding background checks. 83% said yes. But when the question was changed to whether the U.S. Senate should pass such a law, the affirmative responses drop by 20% (p. 179).
Similarly, on the question of whether Americans believe that guns make us safer, Cook and Goss highlight an interesting finding from a telephone survey experiment in the mid-1990s. When asked whether “ordinary Americans” after “proper training” should be able to carry a gun, 65% of respondents said NO. When the question was changed to whether “average Americans, such as yourself” should be allowed to get a concealed-carry license “for self-protection,” 60% of respondents said YES (p. 29).
Even basic facts like the size of the gun industry in America are usually presented. “The combined $7.0 billion in shipments of guns and ammo [in 2012] makes this a relatively small industry, comparable in value to shipments of potato chips or ice cream” (p. 73).
How do criminals obtain their guns? “It is relatively unusual for an individual to buy a firearm directly from a dealer and use it in a crime” (p. 87).
Does the NRA represent the firearms industry? “The question is a matter of interpretation, but as a practical matter the answer may not matter much. . . . [I]t’s not clear that the views of the industry are really more extreme than the views of the NRA’s base (in fact, the opposite is probably true)” (pp. 200-1).
My biggest problem with the book was actually the way it referenced the scholarly literature. It was not always easy to trace particular empirical observations to specific publications. Some points are referenced using footnotes, but the notes themselves referred to a separate reference list, organized by chapter, which contained additional sources. Finding the original sources of the claims was an important part of what I was trying to teach in my course, but perhaps not essential for the average reader.
Although not perfect and not to be taken entirely at face value — what work is? — The Gun Debate was very useful for my class, taught me alot, and will definitely reward the careful and critical reader interested in the role of guns in society.